Ground School

One of the least favorite aspects of learning to fly is the "book learning" one must endure to be able to fly the airplane. Indeed, the concept of having to pass a written exam, scored by a computer and compared to thousands of other student pilots, scares the wheel pants off of some would-be pilots. Then there's the question of whether study for the written exam should occur during flight training or beforehand, so as to weed out the slackers from the Chuck Yeagers and Scott Crossfields before too much money is spent. AVweb's series on primary flight training by Tina Gonsalves continues, as we ride along with a brand-new student during her first few flight hours and through her private pilot checkride. And, especially, her ground school.



Sec. 61.35 Knowledge test:
Prerequisites and passing grades.

(a) An applicant for a knowledge test must have:

  • (1) Received an endorsement, if required by this part, from an authorizedinstructor certifying that the applicant accomplished the appropriate ground-training or a home-study course required by this part for the certificate orrating sought and is prepared for the knowledge test; and
  • (2) Proper identification at the time of application that contains theapplicant’s-
    • (i) Photograph
    • (ii) Signature
    • (iii) Date of birth, which shows the applicant meets or will meet the agerequirements of this part for the certificate sought before the expirationdate of the airman knowledge test report; and
    • (iv) Actual residential address, if different from the applicant’s mailingaddress.

(b) The Administrator shall specify the minimum passing grade for theknowledge test.

Holy Moly, that description sounds more difficult than any knowledge test could ever hope to be.

Put simply, you need to pass the FAA Knowledge Exam no more than two years before heading out for your checkride, a.k.a. The Practical Test. In the past, the knowledge exam was called the Written Exam, but I suppose that since it is often a computer-based test now and not “written,” the wording has become obsolete. And a government office would never use obsolete wording.

The actual private pilot knowledge exam consists of 60 questions, and you are given four hours to take the test. You must score 70% or better to pass. The task at hand was how was I going to achieve that “or better.” At this juncture, I am basically an aeronautical airhead, believing that the three axes of an airplane are what you use to chop through the escape hatch after a particularly rough landing. What did I know? Where do I begin? I was in dire need of a jumping-off place. I needed organization. I needed education. I needed HELP!

Ground schooling discussion began early in my flight experiences. On my Discovery Flight the instructor indicated to me that formal ground school was the only way to go. Coincidentally the flight school he ran offered a ground school course for the tidy sum of $300. That’s quite a bit of money, especially when my flying budget was seriously limited. My instinct told me that a group class would be the best format for me. It had been a long time since college when the learning came easy and when studying for a test was my job. Additionally a classroom environment would give me real live aviating people to interact with. That conjured up visions of sitting around after class, sipping coffee, and discussing the topic du jour with my new flying buddies.

But for $300? Aww, man, my wallet will not put up with that. I must find another alternative. A far-away friend of mine named Frank Thomas was a ground school instructor. Perhaps he could get me wise in the ways of weight and balance via the telephone or modem. It couldn’t hurt to ask, so I asked. And he agreed to help me out. He emailed me his syllabus, along with his recommended textbooks and I got started.

I was concerned, however. The instructor from my first flight left me with the impression that you cannot learn on your own. He said that you need an endorsement from an instructor in order to take the exam and that any instructor worth his certification will not sign off someone that he did not teach. While the endorsement part is true, the impression he left me with was false. Yes, you do need an instructor to sign off on the preparation, and it may be a bit difficult to find one who will do so unless they have personally done the ground instruction, but it is not impossible. There is nothing wrong with studying on your own then showing your study materials to, and maybe answering a few questions from, an instructor. If satisfied he can simply sign you off for the exam.

That concern aside, I embarked on my ground school instruction long-distance style. I began reading, highlighting, studying and memorizing many new topics. I studied my little heart out. My first subject was pilot physiology. Hypoxia, hyperventilation, carbon monoxide and their effects on pilots was my introduction to ground schooling. I poured over the text, highlighting what I felt were the important facts, and reading again and again the details until I felt secure in my newfound knowledge. Once I was confident, I emailed Frank that I was ready and he shot back a quiz. I scored a 97% on that first quiz. Not bad for a rookie.

The Plot Thickens

But, I soon found there was trouble in paradise. It was difficult to grasp some of the ideas without conversation. And with conversation came a price. A price that came to my home disguised as a long-distance telephone bill. The money beast once again arose from the depths to bite at me. No, this scheme wasn’t going to work out after all. Back to the drawing board I went.

I scouted around for other options and found that there were quite a few available. One of the most wide-open avenues is self-study. Books, videos and CD-ROM courses are available from many sources. A quick Internet search will present a plethora of products that you can, and probably will, spend your pennies on.

Because of the generous nature of the pilots that I had befriended, I found myself on the receiving end of many different study aids. In the mail came books, videos, and computer programs of all sorts. All of these different venues of instruction had their good and their bad points for me. The books can be quite dry, although the one by Rod Machado uses humor quite effectively; making it an easier read in my opinion. Although very good, the videos that I had received were enough to send me into a coma at times with the “gee whillikers, boys and girls” manner that was crazy making for a Cosmopolitan gal like myself. The computer programs were right up my alley, however. They were also quite beneficial since that is how they administer the actual test, by computer. Additionally, I was directed to a web site of an acquaintance, Sue Critz, who runs an Internet ground school program.

As with most of the products available, her practice exams are straight off of the test. What distinguishes her online ground school from others that are offered is that she will interact with each student personally. The approach is a personal one – it’s not just a “canned” course that you progress through the same way that you would with a computer-based course. She can identify each student’s strengths and weaknesses, and tailor the training specifically for each student. The course is also open-ended, so each person can progress at their own pace. Her students have been very successful when taking their actual FAA exams. Average scores for past students exceed 90%. That’s not too bad at all. If you want only a 90% on the exam, that is. 😉

The course of action I will take for my ground-schooling course will be a mishmash of different techniques. I have two study guides, an older Jeppesen Private Pilot Manual and Rod Machado’s Private Pilot book. In addition, there is my pal Frank who I can lean on to help me with the topics that I might need some extra help with. Additionally there is the aviation forum that I frequent on CompuServe, my online “airport” where pilots hang around and share their knowledge and experiences. I also used a terrific web site where you can take practice tests over and over and over again.

By this time I had concluded for myself that I would be doing ground school in conjunction with my flight training. Not a formal ground school, but reading on my own and having my CFI supplement along the way. John and I cover what is appropriate to my flying at the time, so it helps it sink in further. I think that yes, I will rely upon my Johnny to teach me all that I need to know in order to pass the knowledge exam. I am of the belief that John is all that I need. In fact I pretty much told this to a man who was visiting Ellington one day. I was there waiting for my next lesson when I struck up a conversation with a rogue pilot who had happened by that day. He asks me how my lessons were going and what was I doing to prepare for the written exam. Idle chitchat among “pilots” don’t you know. He tells me of an adult education class for ground school that he teaches in a nearby town. The cost was only $40 for a 12-week course. I adamantly explain to him that although it sounds quite tempting, I will study with my primary instructor and I won’t need any other means of instruction, thank you very much. He smiles at me. Or was he laughing? I couldn’t quite tell. Why do I have the feeling he thinks I am some ditzy blonde without the “Right Stuff”?

To the Front of the Class?

Biting the Bullet …

John and I do a lot of flying together in the coming months, but not a lot of ground schooling. We work landing after landing until finally I was able to remove his added weight from the airplane and fly solo. I had pretty much let the studying fall by the wayside, concentrating on the flying portion of my lessons. While studying is no fun, flying certainly is. And like the bumper sticker on the back of my Jeep says, “If it’s not fun, why do it?”

The answer to that question can be found in my bathroom. Just like cleaning a toilet, something that is most assuredly not fun, it is a necessary thing to do. And out of necessity, I enrolled in the ground school class being offered through the East Windsor Adult Education Department. I joined the class already in progress, notebook in hand and eager to learn. I see some familiar faces in the classroom. A few other student pilots from my airport and of course, the instructor, Joe Roberts, the man that I met previously at the airport. The man I told, “Thank you, no” with regard to his class. I sure hope he doesn’t hold it against me.

The class is composed of a mix of humanity. One or two private pilots who are taking the course as a refresher, some student pilots like myself at varying stages of training, and a few others who are simply interested in the topic. We are all gathered in a classroom of the high school looking to learn all there that is to know about passing the FAA Knowledge Exam. And we dive right in. Cracking the binding on my brand new Jeppesen Private Pilot Manual, I begin clearing the cobwebs in my mind and buckle down to some good old-fashioned learning. I’m transported back in time to a place where a number 2 pencil and chalk dust ruled my world. I secretly spit my gum into its wrapper, vowing to never let the teacher catch me chewing gum.

Because I had missed the first class, the required reading for today, Principles of Flight, was being discussed without much input from me. I hear terms that I am familiar with but feel a bit behind the curve for the moment. I won’t let that last long though. I’m determined to do well here. After a bit of a break, the instructor dims the lights and introduces me to the world of John and Martha. John and Martha King, that is. They are the reigning King and co-King of aviation videos. I am prepared to give them my rapt attention, letting their entire teachings sink deeply into my head. Trouble was, no sooner did the video start when my mind began to wander. Try as I might I simply was not able to keep focused on the videotape. Soon enough I was filling a yellow legal pad with doodles, scribbles and drawings, chewing on mints and whispering to my neighbor, Ken. Maybe with some luck there is a subliminal program running that will allow me to learn even when I was apparently trying very hard not to.

The videotape ends with some mental applause from Yours Truly, and we discuss what we had just watched. Again, I’m quiet. I’m the new girl to school; I can’t be taking over the class so soon. Towards the end of class, Joe assigns us our next chapter, all about the Flight Environment. This time I promise I’ll read ahead of time.

… Promises, Promises …

Well, sometimes life gets in the way of promises. It’s not easy, this return to the world of school. It’s been quite a few months since I’d been in a formal classroom. 192 months to be exact. I have been on the mom side of the homework equation lately, telling my son to buckle down and get his work done. It’s not all that easy to switch seats. Not easy, but necessary once again. My goal of becoming a pilot is predicated upon my passing the FAA Knowledge Exam. In order to do that I must hone my study skills and work hard to master each of the subjects. I was also not content to simply pass the exam, I needed to excel at it. I read thoroughly each topic making sure that I knew the answers on the chapter tests. Each day I would sit down to a sample test of ten questions, not satisfied until I reached 100% correct. I was focused. As focused as I would like my son Mike to be when he does his homework. So I’m a dreamer too.

The next class and most of the others follow the same format. A topic is assigned for reading; we meet, discuss and then watch videotapes. Bit by bit, class by class, I’m learning the topics necessary to prepare for the exam. Aircraft Systems, Aircraft Performance, Meteorology for Pilots, Interpreting Weather Data, Basic Navigation, Radio Navigation, Aviation Physiology, FARs, Flight Planning and Decision Making are among the topics covered in painstaking detail. The part that makes the class special is that although the topics can be dry, the instructor has a knack for making each class very enjoyable. And being prepared helped too.

… Getting the Chair …

The classes are interspersed with a couple special visits and field trips. The first of these was when Bob Martens of the FAA stopped by to talk to us about safety. With him, he brought a “Barany Chair,” a spatial disorientation experience device – I think it’s really just the toy of a sadist disguised as a flight-training tool. Robert Brny, an Austrian otologist who won a 1914 Nobel Prize for research on the auditory system, invented the device. Brny’s major field of investigation was equilibrium in humans. In 1906 he devised a test that involved the use of a rotating chair to produce nystagmus. (That would be a rapid, involuntary, oscillatory motion of the eyeball to you and me.) The chair used to administer the test is now known as the Brny chair. Basically, it’s an office chair. They sit you down in it and spin, spin, spin you until you’re dizzy and ready to puke. Oh yes, and you’re blindfolded also. That makes it even more fun.

Truly though, it is a great way to show pilots that what you feel is going on isn’t always the case. The inner ear can certainly play tricks on the brain. In flight, those tricks can be deadly. Blindfolded and spinning, you can be turning to the left and swear that you are turning to the right. This chair simulates quite effectively that what you feel isn’t always what you get. And therefore trusting your instruments in flight is best because although your body may lie, properly operating instruments will not.

Just for fun, after class, I came home and spun my children in an office chair so that I could share with them what I had learned. Or perhaps it was just that I found it kind of amusing to make them dizzy enough to fall down. I should talk to Bob, maybe there is a job with the FAA for me one day.

… Taking A Field Trip …

Another wonderful class trip was our visit to the control tower at Bradley International Airport. At the gate we announced our arrival into a speaker. The security there was tremendous. Gates with barbed wire at the top. (To keep us out or them in, I couldn’t tell which.)

Shortly after talking into the speaker, the gates began to slide open and we were allowed to enter the parking lot. Dean Charron, our tour-guide for the evening, greeted us. Because our class was so large we were split into two smaller groups. One headed up to the control tower, the other to the TRACON room. TRACON is an acronym for Terminal Radar Approach Control, a dark room where they keep the radarscopes that go blip as well as the people who understand what those blips mean.

I cannot begin to tell you the impact that this visit had upon me. It was absolutely amazing to bond with these people. Previously I was quite mic shy when it came to talking to Air Traffic Control. I tended to avoid it whenever I could. For some reason they intimidated me. I feared that they would make me perform maneuvers beyond my abilities, or vector me out into East Bumshoot when all I really wanted to do was to fly to Westfield, Mass. I also thought they could see my lack of experience and would be giggling behind my back at me. What I found in fact was a group of professionals who wanted nothing more than to keep all aircraft flying until the pilots wanted them to stop flying. Noise abatement is one of their goals: A midair collision makes quite a loud racket.

… The Shadow Knows

After the visit, Dean concluded with an invitation to come back and shadow a controller. He added that he makes this offer to all of the tour groups, but rarely does anyone take him up on the deal. A few months later I called Dean and made an appointment to visit. I guess I am a rare bird. Again, another fascinating experience. I was allowed to shadow an air traffic controller for the evening. Leads me to believe there is something seriously wrong with me because I was there for four hours. I showed up at the gate at 7:00 and was buzzed in. I was lead into the TRACON room and plugged in beside Dean. He explained a bit of what he was doing, and then apologized for the slow pace that night. It wasn’t a busy night yet, but that it should pick up if I stayed awhile. Do you think staying four hours is considered a while?

Throughout the evening I learned things I had never experienced before, and probably would not need to know for quite sometime. One of the most important lessons I learned was that air traffic controllers are our friends. And that they do want to help. The biggest tip they had for me was that if ever I’m lost or need help, to let them know immediately. ‘Fess up. Don’t fake it till you make it because you simply may not. Another handy piece of information was that although it’s “legal” to be between 5-10 miles from Bradley below 2,100 feet and not talk to them, it’s not the wisest of ideas. Dean says, “You’ll be flying along, perfectly legal, when there will appear to be a total eclipse of the sun as a Continental on approach screams by you at 1,900 feet.” That scene was sort of played out for me on a lesson one Saturday. Johnny and I had gone up to Barnes-Westfield for a lesson. On the way back we gave Bradley a call for flight following. The controller (who turns out to have been Dean, in fact) asks me to turn to a heading of 360 degrees.

After almost reaching that heading, he has me continue the turn back to 150 and maintain at or below 1,800 feet. All right, again no problem. Soon we see what all the gyrations were for as Allegheny what-ever-it-was was headed straight towards us at, oh 2,500 feet or so. We waved. Do you think they saw us? Cool and exciting because I expected it, but had I been flying solo and not been talking to BDL I’d have been pretty much concerned. Change your pants when you get home, concerned.

Lessons Learned

So, I learned that lesson, big time. ATC isn’t just ordering me around because they feel like it, but because it’s necessary. Though they are not above doing that just because they feel like it sometimes too. Learned that as well. Be nice to ATC and they’ll be nice to you. Give them difficulties and well, you might find yourself on the way to East Bumshoot for no good reason.

The diversions of guest speakers and special field trips were an added benefit of the ground school class. It gave me exposure to things I would not have experienced with other methods of schooling. Additionally, it certainly opened up the world for me allowing me to meet other people who flew. People I now consider my dear friends.

As the 14th week of my 12-week course concluded, I earned a certificate with an endorsement qualifying me to go and take the FAA Knowledge Exam. Certainly I didn’t feel prepared, but Joe assured me that I was. All that you need is a 70% to pass, and all you need to do is pass. About one week after completing the course I decided to bite the bullet and trust Joe. I called Brainard Airport in Hartford, Conn., and made an appointment to take the test. So, on January 14, 2000, I drove down for the exam. A couple hours later, my list of things to do for my Private Pilot Certificate became even shorter. I completed my FAA Private Pilot Written Exam.

And passed the test. But not with a 70% or even a 90%. I walked out of there the proud recipient of a 97% passing grade.

Not bad for a ditzy blonde.

Editor’s Note:

Additional articles in this series by Tina Gonsalves include: